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November 13, 2018

In Bosnia, young man's death stirs nationwide protest

In Bosnia, young man's death stirs nationwide protest
'Davor Dragicevic (L), whose son was found dead in a stream in March, has been at the forefront of a major protest movement against injustice and corruption in Bosnia' - By: AFP ELVIS BARUKCIC

When the body of a 21-year-old student was found in a stream in March, police said it was an accident. But his family cried foul, unleashing a wave of protests unseen in Bosnia since 2014.

Until his disappearance, David Dragicevic had been just an ordinary youngster studying technology in the small town of Banja Luka in northern Bosnia.

But his death has transformed him into the symbol of a civil protest movement against injustice and corruption in high places, which has rapidly gathered pace ahead of Bosnia's general election in October.

Dragicevic's death has dominated political discourse in Republika Srpska, the Serb-run entity of Bosnia, whose capital is Banja Luka.

The protests have also drawn support from Croats and Muslims, with many arriving in Banja Luka on Saturday from various Bosnian towns, to attend a major rally that drew several thousand people.

Such unity is extremely rare in the nation of 3.5 million people where politics have long been divided along ethnic lines since the 1992-1995 war that claimed 100,000 lives.

- A catalyst -

When Dragicevic's body was found six days after he went missing, police wrote it off as an accident, initially suggesting he had been involved in a burglary, then later referred to him as someone who smoked cannabis and used LSD.

But such claims have outraged his family, who remain convinced he was killed. His father Davor, 49-year old waiter, has repeatedly demanded that justice be done.

The case has become a catalyst for a wave of public protest in a country where resentment has long simmered over perceived corruption in the ruling classes, from the police to the judiciary to Bosnia's politicians.

Since the end of March, hundreds of protesters have gathered in Banja Luka every day to demand "truth" and "justice", many wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with an image of the young man who had dark hair and dreadlocks.

Gathering at a site now dubbed "David's Square", they listen to a song he wrote which has since been recorded by Dubioza Kolektiv, one of Bosnia's biggest bands that has often been the voice of social or political struggle, notably in 2014.

And every day, Dragicevic's father is there, accusing the police and magistrates, whom he names, of "complicity".

"Criminals, assassins! The hand of justice will get you!" he shouts, his first raised in the air. "Murderers!" the crowd chants.

- Crossing the ethnic divide -

Two months ago, Davor Dragicevic went to Sarajevo to meet up with another grieving father, a Bosnian Muslim called Muriz Memic who also claims his son was murdered in a case he says was sidelined by the police and justice system in 2016.

Police say 22-year-old Dzenan Memic was killed in a car accident.

Both fathers came together at a rally in Sarajevo of mostly Bosnian Muslims, where protesters waved placards demanding justice for the two young men.

"I am Serb, Orthodox Christian. The murderers of my son are Serbs... These criminals and murderers have neither religion nor nationality, just their own interest," Dragicevic told them.

Political analyst Tanja Topic said such a rare show of solidarity had unnerved the authorities as they did not know to control an event that "crosses ethnic and religious divisions, something which by no means suits all ethnic-nationalists in power".

- Corruption rife -

In Bosnia, there is a crippling lack of trust in politicians, which has contributed -- along with poverty -- to at least 150,000 people leaving the country over the past five years, figures from the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration charity show.

Anti-corruption organisation Transparency International ranked Bosnia in 91st place, behind Kosovo, in its latest annual global corruption perception index.

And a recent European Union report also noted corruption was widespread in Bosnia, notably in the judiciary where it "still needs to be more forcefully addressed."

"Overall observance of human rights remained in need of substantial improvements," it said.

"In this state... there is no order, it is a black hole," Davor Dragicevic told AFP.

"They created a private state for themselves here... they are all the same, those in power and the opposition, linked by crime. But it won't be the way they want it any longer."

This week, Dragicevic scored a first victory when the prosecutor's office qualified his son's death as a possible murder.

With elections fast approaching, Republika Srpska's leader Milorad Dodik has accused the opposition of "politicising" the case.

"These gatherings need to stop in order so that can be handled by the proper institutions," he said this week.

And some of the protesters themselves are starting to get worried about reprisals, with 35-year-old Milan saying he and his mother had stopped going after their clothing store was visited three times by inspectors "even though they have not come once in the past six years".

But others keep going to the protest where they still play Dragicevic's song, its lyrics strangely poignant.

"It seems I won't get very far because I am only a pawn in this story... I'm only a kid in the ghetto."

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